Keeping it shipshape


May 2, 2012

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As offshore wind power moves out into deeper, more dangerous waters it is time to make sure the ships involved are fit for purpose – By Jason Deign, European Correspondent

What have luxury yachts and offshore wind operations and maintenance (O&M) vessels got in common? A lot more than you would think, according to Ian Baylis, managing director of Seacat Services from the Isle of Wight, UK.

Right now Baylis is busy commissioning a fleet of custom-built, multi-purpose wind farm support vessels from boat builder South Boats, which he hopes will set a new standard in the industry.

The vessels will be kitted out to the highest specification for sure. But that is not the main point, says Baylis, whose previous marine experience includes working in the high-end yachting business.

“If you’re a boat owner and you’ve got your family on board then you will pay what it takes to make sure nothing can happen to them,” he observes. “That means having the best possible vessel, the best equipment, the best crew and best skipper.”

In offshore wind, the stakes are getting just as high, he says. As the ventures move into the deeper waters and more hazardous conditions involved in Round 3 projects, the costs of making a mistake in turbine installation or O&M rise dramatically.

Similarly, with anti-wind campaigners and the media keeping a close watch on the industry, one thing wind power developers simply cannot afford is a tarnished safety record. That is why having boats that can go beyond the call of duty is critical. It has not always been this way, of course.

Peter Hodgetts, marine health and safety champion for the Crown Estate, which owns the seabed around the UK, says: “A couple of years ago there was a lot of pressure to do surveys and they were using whatever was available.

“Not all of it was fit for purpose.”

That may have been OK for shallow water operations, he adds. But it will not do now. “Whereas you may have got by using 12 to 13-metre boats near shore, on Dogger Bank it’s a very different boat that you need,” he says.

That need has triggered a fully warranted increase in attention around the standard of O&M vessels. There is no question that the industry has not been taking the issue of vessels seriously up until now, of course. But, states Hodgetts: “We have already had accidents and fatalities in what has essentially been a small industry.

“If you extrapolate that out into Round 3 it would clearly be unacceptable. One accident is one too many.”

The safety incidents so far are not a result of cutting corners, he believes, but of a simple lack of awareness of some of the risks involved.

To help remedy this, Hodgetts has led the production of a Crown Estate Vessel Safety Guide in association with the standards and certification body Det Norske Veritas (DNV) KEMA Energy & Sustainability. The guide aims to give project owners and developers a better idea of the things they should be looking out for when it comes to offshore vessels, says Hodgetts.

And Mark Young, head of department for Cleaner Energy and Utilities UK in DNV KEMA’s Europe and North Africa Division, says offshore vessels is an area his organisation is intending to focus on more closely in the future.

“We’re going to be more active in the performance evaluation of access vessels and access vessel technology,” he confirms. “The question is how do you compare two vessels or two technologies to each other?

“Right now it’s difficult to do a sea trial in one location and compare it to what might happen in another location.”

There is still no timeframe set for this work, but there is no doubt it will be welcome.

Already Seacat Services is ensuring its vessels meet DNV’s overall standards for wind farm operations, as well as conforming to a host of other regulations, including International Safety Management, ISO 9001, 14001 and 18001.

“The speed of development has been huge,” notes Baylis of Seacat. “If you look at what was being put on a wind farm five years ago, you were talking about adaptive vessels, previously built for another purpose – not an ideal situation by any means.

“Now you have boats specifically designed and fit for purpose, made of bespoke materials, with strengthened decks and propulsion systems designed to hold securely to fixed structures, in increasingly harsh environments.”

This care for quality extends to crews. “Utilising classified vessels ensures that the standard and certification of crew is extremely high,” Baylis points out.

Naturally the vessels and crews offered by companies such as Seacat Services come at a price; Baylis estimates his vessels are costing approximately 30% more than run-of-the-mill equivalents. But he believes the extra cost will be worth it, not least because his boats and people should be able to carry on working safely in conditions that others could not venture out in.

And even the premium placed on comfort and safety could have a payback, he says: “Having shock mitigation seating and soft-mounted superstructures might seem extravagant, but ultimately the safety and comfort of our passengers and crew remains our primary concern.”

“It is all about using the best quality materials to ensure the vessel and the crew can continue delivering as much value as possible. For as long as possible. And as safely as possible.”

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